God's Will

Sunday 23rd December 2007
Year A, The Forth Sunday of Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Isaiah 7:10-14
Matthew 1:18-25

When I was a child being brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition, Mary the Mother of God was a bundle of doctrines: the Immaculate Conception, not to be confused with the Virgin Birth; and the Assumption into Heaven. Along with this heavy doctrinal agenda there was a great deal of emphasis on Mary as our mother and intercessor. There was hardly any thought of Mary as an individual teenage girl in an awkward social situation.

Now that thought, about Mary as a real peasant girl, is commonplace, summed up in the hymn words of "Blessed Mary, Teenage Mother"; and although I think that is a positive development, it can tend to push Mary into a nudge and wink sort of scenario: conception outside marriage; poor Joseph; Holy Spirit; you must be joking!

If we are to consider today's Gospel in a rounded way we need to get two points very clear: first, you don't have to believe in the Immaculate Conception of Mary nor the Virgin Birth to accept that her womb was the willing vessel that bore Jesus, Son of God; secondly, the somewhat folksy accounts of Joseph as a rather dim and helplessly compliant bystander are not justified by Matthew's account.

On the first point, Mary's assent to be the earthly Mother of God is far more important than the supposed mechanics of conception which might well result from a misconstruction of Isaiah 7:14 where the term "virgin" (in the Authorised Version) almost certainly simply means "young woman" (in the NRSV translation we are using). In the age of Isaiah all young women were supposed not to have sexual relations until after marriage. Adhesion to the doctrine of the 'virgin birth' also raises the important issue of whether it arises primarily out of male contempt in church tradition for God's gift of sexuality. Might not the idea be dangerously close to a dualism which separates and elevates the spiritual above the physical? So the question we need to ask ourselves here is whether the status of Jesus as the Son of God would be altered in any way if we held that Joseph and not the Holy Spirit was the agent of conception with The Spirit acting through him?

On the second point, Matthew's account shows Joseph to be both fair and decisive. Such was the difference between young men and women that Joseph could have ruined Mary without any damage to his own reputation. He could have denied association with her and sought a bill of divorce. He chose not to do this but, rather, to accept what he was told in a dream and what she surely told him after her spiritual encounter which Luke summarises in the form of a dialogue between her and the Angel Gabriel. In a way that we can only approximate, the birth of Jesus was the result of an 3-way agreement between Mary, Joseph and God through the Angel Gabriel.

At this point it is also very important to note that Mary and Joseph may well have been married, not simply betrothed, when conception took place. Again, the complicating factor in the perception of the Evangelists is the use of the term virgin which implies that Mary was unmarried when she was confronted by Gabriel and when Joseph dreamed his dream. If they were not married when Mary conceived, what does that say about the prohibition the Church places on sex outside marriage and the importance it places on marriage?

Having got all these difficult points out of the way, we can now focus on what is really important. The central feature of the story of Mary and Joseph is their assent to do the will of God. The difficulty for them was surely not the legitimacy question which so fascinates us (in almost all societies at almost all times the importance of legitimacy is in respect of property rights), the difficulty for Mary and Joseph was making a public statement, echoing Elkhana and Hannah, the parents of Samuel (1 Samuel 1), that their child, by spiritual fiat, was to be special to God. Whether they thought that Jesus was in some incarnational way the Son of God is a different issue and one so alien to Judaism that I doubt it ever crossed their minds. But whatever the doctrinal status of the expected child, they certainly risked ridicule at the very least because, after all, there was a 50/50 chance the baby would be a girl but, much more seriously, they risked being charged with blasphemy for saying that their child was spiritually sanctioned and would be God's Son; this was, after all, the charge which ultimately caused Jesus' death. What is important for us to recognise is that although they were humble, simple and poor folk, they took an immense risk for the sake of what they believed, however unlikely. They asked for nothing: not for some kind of guarantee, not for special gifts, not for financial support; they just affirmed and proceeded; they didn't quibble, they just got on with it.

This almost stark account in Matthew is a proper counterbalance to the deluge of sentimentality which is about to engulf us: on the one hand we have the concept of unconditional assent to the will of God, on the other the temporary indulgence of easy feeling; on the one hand, the harsh reality of risk, on the other the cost-free, or even mildly pleasant, sensation of a little theological toe dipping; on the one hand, the awesome responsibility of caring for a very special child, on the other the picking up and tossing away of the Christ child as if it were nothing more than a toy.

There is a type of carol writing which I particularly admire which uses metaphor and simile to link the birth and death of Jesus. The authors of the new Manchester Carols believe that this is a novel approach but it actually goes back almost as far as St. Cyril's promotion of the Feast of Christmas in the 5th Century. The Holly and the Ivy, the Sans Day Carol and, much later, Lo, He Comes in Clouds Descending, all make this point specifically enough but I like the link that is sometimes made between Joseph's intimate relationship with wood and the fashioning of the Cross. Just as we have tended to constrict the real Mary in a web of doctrine so, too, we have tended to overlook the real human, family tragedy of the Crucifixion which happened to real people in a real place, with real thorns, real nails, real blood and real tears.

During the next few days we will be travelling to Bethlehem with Mary and Joseph, with real people that laughed as we laugh and cried as we cry, loved as we love and, yes, made love as we make love. But that journey only begins in Bethlehem; it ends on Calvary and to understand and imitate the deep, personal, costly commitment which Mary and Joseph made to Jesus, our journey must end there too.